Army Report: Poor planning led to FSO Anne Smedinghoff and troops’ death in Afghanistan

— Domani Spero

On April 7, 2014, LAT reported that one year after a 25-year-old diplomat from the Chicago area was killed in a car bombing in southern Afghanistan, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul remembered Anne Smedinghoff  by reading poetry and releasing balloons in a courtyard that was named for her.

“She was a truly remarkable young woman and friend,” U.S. Ambassador James B. Cunningham said in a solemn ceremony on a sun-splashed afternoon in Kabul.

We’ve previously blogged about this here:

On April 23, 2014, Chicago Tribune’s Geoff Ziezulewicz has an exclusive on a scathing Army report concerning Ms. Smedinghoff’s death, the three U.S. soldiers, Staff Sgt. Christopher M. Ward, 24, Spc. Wilbel A. Robles-Santa, 25, Spc. Deflin M. Santos Jr., 24, and an unidentified interpreter in Afghanistan on April 6, 2013.  The report says that the mission deliver books …. was plagued by poor planning that “failed at all levels.”  It also confirmed a tip we received a year ago that a top State Department official, Ambassador Jonathan Addleton, was at the book dropoff with Smedinghoff. The report says the senior official  “may have been the main target, although insurgents were perhaps targeting anyone partaking in the mission. The report also notes that the planning and security that should be afforded such a VIP was not provided in this instance. Addleton’s presence at the event that day had not been previously disclosed.”

The Army report, obtained by the Tribune through the Freedom of Information Act also says that the security platoon already had other missions planned for that day; that the soldiers did not know how many people they were going to escort, making their job harder; also that the civilians were not wearing the proper protective gear.   The book event at the school was reportedly characterized in military briefings as a “Media Extravaganza.” One soldier reportedly wrote in a statement that he described the event as providing “Happy Snaps,” or photo opportunities, for top officials in Kabul. The company supplying the books reportedly desired “more media reporting.”  Scholastic and State Department representatives told the Tribune that the company did not mandate any kind of publicity event.

Ms. Smedinghoff’s father,  Tom Smedinghoff, said that he had not seen the Army investigation before Wednesday, according to the Tribune.  Meanwhile, the State Department spox told the Tribune that a classified internal review of the day was conducted, and that the department determined no State rules were broken.

The Tribune citing the Army report says that planning for the book giveaway began with a U.S. Embassy email on March 18, 2013, to a State Department civilian at the base. It was to take place at a boys’ school just outside the south wall of the base in the city of Qalat and would be covered by Afghan media.

We think that this is the school where the book event was to take place. If this is wrong, please email us with corrections.

Spc. Jonathan Smith pulls security outside the Sheik Mati Boys School in Qalat, Afghanistan, while members of Provincial Reconstruction Team Zabul assess the school's dining hall and kitchen for future renovations, April 16. Smith is part of PRT Zabul's security force. Photo via DVIDS: Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson 4.16.2011

Spc. Jonathan Smith pulls security outside the Sheik Mati Boys School in Qalat, Afghanistan, while members of Provincial Reconstruction Team Zabul assess the school’s dining hall and kitchen for future renovations, April 16. Smith is part of PRT Zabul’s security force.
Photo via DVIDS: Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson
4.16.2011

Below is a quick excerpt from the Tribune’s report: Poor planning led to River Forest diplomat’s death in Afghanistan:

A U.S. mission to deliver books to a school in Afghanistan that ended in the death of a young foreign service officer from River Forest was plagued by poor planning that “failed at all levels,” according to a scathing Army report obtained by the Tribune.

The Army report for the first time criticizes civilian and military leaders for not following security protocols in the lead-up to the mission.
[…]
The email, sent from the special projects coordinator of the embassy’s public affairs section, requested “an event to publicize the distribution of books provided by Scholastic, Inc.,” the report said.

“Scholastic donated quite a lot of books for use in the schools in Afghanistan and it took a very long time for those books to get here,” a copy of the email enclosed in the Army report states. “Scholastic would like to see more media reporting.”

Qalat was chosen because a local official had requested such a visit and “partly because we would like Scholastic to feel as though we are doing something,” the email states. “Because we think the visuals would be nice, we thought that Qalat would be the perfect place for a media tour.”

Apparently,  the State Department’s presence at the base in Zabul ended 12 days after the attack. The Tribune also reported that the Army administratively disciplined two officers after the attack. Do you know what happened internally at State following the Zabul attack?

Read the full report here and weep.

We sent emails asking questions about this incident last year, nothing except one came back. One source in Kabul would not confirm or deny the circumstances surrounding Ms. Smedinghoff’s death.  The individual also declined to provide details of the the attack.  There was a concern then that this could become political given what happened in Benghazi.  But more telling perhaps was what my source pointed out — that Ms. Smedinghoff  would not have had the authority to make the decision about her movements.  No one gets to make those decisions unilaterally at US Mission Afghanistan.

We’d like to see the State Department declassify its internal report on the Zabul attack.  We think the Smedinghoff family should have access to it if it so desire.  The State Department spokesperson said that no State rules were broken. If so, there should not be a problem with releasing that internal review.  It would be in the public interest to see how the agency’s internal review stack up against the Army report.

That said, we do not/not think that State will disclose its internal review unless compelled to do so by court or the Congress. 

Of course, nothing precludes Secretary Kerry from declassifying the internal review and voluntarily releasing it now in light of the Army report. 

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Confirmations: Cunningham, Cretz, Malac, Armbruster, Wharton, Holtz, Laskaris, Ries, Koenig, Kirby

On August 2nd, the United States Senate confirmed the following ambassadorial nominees:

PN1826 – James B. Cunningham, of New York, to be Ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan

Executive Calendar #858 Gene Allan Cretz, of New York, to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Republic of Ghana.

Executive Calendar #859 Deborah Ruth Malac, of Virginia, to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Republic of Liberia.

Executive Calendar #860 Thomas Hart Armbruster, of New York, to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

Executive Calendar #861 David Bruce Wharton, of Virginia, to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Republic of Zimbabwe.

Executive Calendar #862 Greta Christine Holtz, of Maryland, to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Sultanate of Oman.

Executive Calendar #863 Alexander Mark Laskaris, of Maryland, to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Republic of Guinea.

Executive Calendar #864 Marcie B. Ries, of the District of Columbia to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Republic of Bulgaria.

Executive Calendar #865 John M. Koenig, of Washington, to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Republic of Cyprus.

Executive Calendar #866 Michael David Kirby, of Virginia, to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Republic of Serbia.

That leaves Carlos Pascual, of the District of Columbia, nominated to be an Assistant Secretary of State (Energy Resources) as the only State Department nominee stuck in the Senate.  This nomination has been on the Executive Calendar since March 2012.  We are guessing that there is a senate hold on this but cannot find the tale of that hold as of this writing.

Also, the nominee for US Ambassador to Pakistan, Ambassador Richard Olson had his SFRC hearing on July 31st but it does not look like his nomination made it out of committee.

The Senate will have pro forma sessions starting Friday, August 3rd until Friday, September 7th and reconvenes on September 10 at 2:00 p.m.

Domani Spero

Officially In: James B. Cunningham – from Kabul to Kabul

On July 17, President Obama announced his intent to nominate Ambassador James B. Cunningham as the next Ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. The WH released the following brief bio:

Ambassador James B. Cunningham, a career member of the Senior Foreign Service, Class of Career Minister, is Deputy Ambassador at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.  Prior to his post in Kabul, Ambassador Cunningham served as the U.S. Ambassador to Israel from 2008 to 2011.  From 2005 to 2008, he was U.S. Consul General in Hong Kong.  Previous assignments include: Ambassador and Deputy U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations (1999-2004); Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Rome (1996-1999); Director of the State Department’s Office of European Security and Political Affairs (1993-1995); and Chief of Staff to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Secretary General (1989-1990).  Earlier assignments include posts with the U.S. Mission to NATO, as well as posts at the U.S. Embassies in Rome and Stockholm.

Ambassador Cunningham received a B.A. in Political Science and a B.A. in Psychology from Syracuse University.

If confirmed, Ambassador Cunningham would succeed Ambassador Ryan Crocker currently doing the press rounds as he prepares to return to retirement a full year before his two year tenure was to end due to health reasons.

U.S. Deputy Ambassador gives remarks at the inauguration of the Ghazi School.
U.S. Deputy Ambassador to Afghanistan James B. Cunningham, Afghan Minister of Education Abdul Rahim Wardak and visitng former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmai Khalilzad officially inaugurated the newly rebuilt Ghazi High School in West Kabul October 23, 2011. Former alumni of the school include both Ambassador Khalilzad and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The school was destroyed during 30 years of fighting in Afghanistan, and was refurbished by the U.S. Agency for International Development. (Department of State)
click on image for a slideshow

As noted in his brief bio, Ambassador Cunningham was the chief of mission at the US Embassy in Israel prior to his assignment in Kabul in 2011.  So we dug up the OIG report during his tenure in Israel, which has some really good things to say about his three-year assignment in Tel Aviv:

  • The Ambassador has forged productive relationships with senior Israeli and Washington officials, adding significant value to one of the United States’ most sensitive and central bilateral relationships.
  • Given the intersection of U.S. foreign policy objectives, high-profile domestic attention to Israel, and historically intransigent issues, Embassy Tel Aviv’s leadership faces challenges matched in intensity in only three or four other world capitals. The Ambassador performs commendably in this context and has advanced the U.S. relationship with the Israeli Government in the 2 years since his arrival.
  • Because few bilateral relationships attract the attention of as many senior American officials as the relationship with Israel, the Ambassador has a unique opportunity to interact daily or weekly with the President; National Security Adviser; Secretary of State; top legislators, military figures, and their senior staffs; the SEMEP; the general who heads the Roadmap Monitoring Mission; and the general who acts as the USSC.
  • Embassy section heads described the Ambassador as a masterful briefer of Members of Congress and senior U.S. military officers; his astute grasp of the forces at play in Israel helps shape their views and programs.
  • The heads of U.S.agencies at the embassy were unanimous in their appreciation for the Ambassador’s support for and involvement in their work.

The report has the following item, too, which if uncorrected would make managing one of the largest embassies in the world a double challenge:

Communication within the mission is limited. The Ambassador is respected for his intellectual ability but rarely interacts with employees below the most senior ranks.

He is reportedly a persuasive speaker; we’re looking forward to his confirmation hearing and see if he’ll make us feel any better about our prospects in Afghanistan.

Domani Spero

Related items:

OIG Report No. ISP-I-11-31A – Inspection of Embassy Tel Aviv, Israel – March 2011

July 17, 2012 | President Obama Announces More Key Administration Posts